A small earthquake rumbled through the autism world shortly after 7:30 a.m. on April 11, and the aftershocks are going to be felt for a long time.
That's when Katie Wright, daughter of NBC Universal Chairman Bob Wright, said she is concerned her young son Christian's autism might be related to vaccines he received, that he is getting better through treatments that include biomedical interventions, and that it's time for parents to follow their own "common sense" when they get their kids vaccinated.
Big deal? Yes, big deal.
It's hard to overstate the buzz circulating through the autism community over the past few months as it became known that Katie Wright was among those with concerns about vaccines playing a role in her child's autism -- and that she was trying to help him recover accordingly.
"I think it's a huge story," one autism activist e-mailed me in February. "This child triggered a weeklong series on NBC and the most well-funded autism organization on the planet (Autism Speaks)," not to mention the high-profile heft of the Wrights in lobbying for more money, more research and more awareness of a disorder that afflicts 1 in every 166 American kids.
Thousands of parents with concerns just like Katie Wright's have been all but ostracized, as have the small but growing minority of doctors trying to help them. I know two MDs who lost faculty appointments shortly after I wrote about them, and I hear story after story about pediatricians rolling their eyes when they hear vaccine-related health concerns of any kind from parents. Many ban families who balk from their practices.
Sitting right next to Katie Wright on "Imus in the Morning" on MSNBC was her father, who also is vice chairman and executive officer of GE, one of the world's biggest corporations. His comments were understandably more general -- nobody knows what causes autism, he said; vaccines are in the mix of possibilities that need urgent research; as are other environmental issues, as are genetic factors.
But does anybody think he would have been there if he vehemently objected to his daughter expressing her concerns? (For that matter, does anybody think Katie Wright would have been there? After all, he runs the joint.)
After Christian's diagnosis, Bob Wright and his wife, Suzanne, founded Autism Speaks, an advocacy group. Some longtime autism activists consider it a bit namby-pamby, but after Tuesday that impression may be due for an update.
Regardless, what Katie Wright had to say extends a thoroughly bad spell for the nation's health bureaucrats and medical trade associations in their efforts to stamp out discussion of a possible vaccine link to autism.
Major newspapers such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Los Angeles Times, which has been the best by far on this topic, published articles on such groups' relentless opposition to banning thimerosal -- the mercury-based preservative some believe triggered a huge rise in autism diagnoses in the 1990s -- from childhood vaccinations.
Last week 22 health organizations sent a letter to every member of the U.S. Congress putting themselves on record that such bans are a danger to public health -- yes, banning mercury from childhood vaccines is dangerous, keeping it in is not. Several states have banned it anyway, including heavyweights Illinois, California and New York.
Meanwhile, Katie Wright said, the American Academy of Pediatrics has not endorsed a pending bill in Congress called Combating Autism -- backed by Autism Speaks and numerous other organizations -- which includes funding for research into possible causes of the epidemic, not excluding vaccines. Some apparently take that as a threat to the third rail of public-health policy: the U.S. childhood immunization schedule.
Katie Wright zinged 'em on that one -- she called the AAP's stance "shameful and disgraceful." And she said that whatever caused Christian's autism, she wishes she hadn't let her doctor give him six vaccines on one day at age 2 months. Parents need to use "common sense," she said -- would you, an adult, want six vaccines in one day?
Then she raised the stakes. Parents should insist that doctors "separate the vaccines." You know, give them over several office visits rather than all at once to minimize chances of a bad reaction.
That doesn't sound terribly threatening to public health, does it? Yet it's heresy -- completely contrary to the position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Use of licensed combination vaccines ... is preferred to separate injection of their equivalent component vaccines," says the CDC's authoritative Pink Book of vaccine-preventable diseases.
And they should all be administered "as soon as the child becomes eligible for vaccination."
And they should contain mercury, if we say so.
By putting her foot down, Katie Wright joins thousands of other parents putting the "father-knows-best" branch of medicine on notice that it's not nutty to use common sense when your child's health is at stake.
Others will differ, but that's what I call a public service announcement.